Even Native Speakers Make Mistakes

There is an interesting dicussion on the Silly Linguistics Community Facebook page which started with this post:

While learning a foreign language, the teachers sometimes remark that “even native speakers get this wrong. Don’t imitate them”.

How could native speakers possibly be wrong?? If they’re not the standard, then what is?? An artificial one from the textbook?? We learn a language to communicate with the natives, not with the textbook, right??

The debate looks at these questions from different perspectives. Many commenters agree that native speakers do make mistakes in their own languages, and give examples from a variety of languages. Others argue that native speakers of a language don’t all speak the same version of their language. There are also comments about native speakers not knowing the grammar of their own language, or at least not being able to explain why words are used in particular ways.

When field linguists document previously undocumented languages, they work out how the language is used by the people who speak it. They don’t learn the language, then start telling native speakers that they are making mistakes. However, with languages that have standardised versions, especially written versions, people come to believe that the standard version is the ‘right’ version, and any deviation from it is a ‘mistake’. Thus non-standard varieties may be looked down on, ridiculed, and even erradicated by teachers in schools.

Can a native speaker make mistakes in their own language?
Yes. There are various kinds of mistakes a native speaker might make. Such as disfluencies, when you mispronounce words, or get your syllables or words jumbled up. Or you may spoonerise, as in par cark, rather than car park.

You may confuse words with similar sounds or meanings, such as effect and affect. You may miss out words – I certainly do when writing sometimes, and don’t always realise, as I know what I intended to write, so when I read the text again, I mentally fill in any missing words.

Spelling errors are also common, especially in English, as are orthographic errors, such as adding apostrophe’s when they’re not necessary, or forgetting to add them. Or, using too many, or too few commas.

Here are some examples of ‘mistakes’ native speakers make in English:

Many native speakers don’t know the grammar of their own language
This is a common misconception that often appears in discussions about language, especially when talking about how words or particular grammatical features ‘should’ be used. For example, the use of less and fewer in English. You may not know all the grammatical terms, such as noun, adjective, gender, case, etc, and the conventions like use to apostrophes, but you can use the language effectively. Native speakers of English are unlikely to say something like “To the shop went I morning this” or “Grammar very important is”, unless you’re imitating Yoda.

John McWhorter often talks about things like this on his podcast, Lexicon Valley. On a recent show he mentioned that the less / fewer distinction is an arbitary rule made up by someone in the 19th century. People have been using these words interchangeably for a long time without any confusion. So if someone tells you that the the signs in supermarkets shouldn’t say “five items or less” but “five items or fewer”, you could refer them to his podcast.

In Welsh textbooks and grammar books you are taught how to use mutations – that is the way initial consonants change in various circumstances. For example, Dw i’n byw ym Mangor = I live in Bangor, Dw i’n mynd i Fangor = I’m going to Bangor. Native speakers of Welsh don’t always use these as described in the books – sometimes they mutate, sometimes they don’t. So who is right? The native speakers, or the writers of textbooks and grammars? Or both?

Languages change all the time. New words and grammatical constructions emerge. The meanings of words can expand, or contract, and the ways they’re used changes. Such changes often happen in informal language first. Some of them at least will eventually become part of the standard language.

If your utterances and scribblings are understood by others, then you have managed to communicate effectively, even if you deviate from the perceived standard version of the language.

But we have to have standard’s, don’t we? And there are some things that you just shoudn’t do, like starting a sentence with a conjunction, splitting an infinitve – to happily do so is just wrong. And to finish a sentence with a preposition is something I can’t be having with! 😉

Do linguistic mistakes and errors bother you?

Polyglot Pathways

Recently I’ve seen questions on various Facebook groups about whether someone can be called a polyglot if they only speak certain languages, e.g. only Romance languages, or only languages from one region, e.g. Europe, or if they only can read and write the languages but cannot speak them.

As far as I’m concerned, a polyglot could be anyone who speaks, understands, reads, writes and/or signs serveral languages. It doesn’t matter how many languages or which languages they are.

There are many different paths to polyglothood, or polyglot pathways, as I like to call them. Each polyglot and potential polyglot has their own reasons for learning languages, and for choosing particular languages.

  • You could specialise in one language and its variant forms – dialects and accents; regional, social and historical versions; creoles based on it (if any); and the other languages that have contributed to it.
  • You could specialise in one language family, or one part of a language family.
  • You might prefer to learn languages from various language families and regions.
  • You might concentrate on languages with the most speakers, or ones spoken in the most countries.
  • Alternatively you might prefer smaller languages, or endangered, revived or ancient languages.

I’m currently concentrating on Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages, and to a lesser extent on Celtic languages.

What polyglot pathways are you exploring?

International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day Poster

As you might know, today is International Mother Language Day. The theme this year is “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism: keystones of sustainability and peace”.

To do my bit for multilinguism, I’m currently learning Swedish, Russian, Romanian and Slovak, and practising other languages, especially French and Welsh. So far today I’ve learnt a bit more Romanian and Russian, listened to some Welsh language radio, and read a bit of Swedish.

Tonight I studied some Swedish and Slovak, spoke English and Laala, read in English, Latin and Scots, and sang in English, Welsh, French, Zulu and Church Slavonic.

What languages have you spoken, read, heard, written, sung and/or studied today?

Sitting in a session

If someone said to you, “It was a good session last night”, what would you understand by that?

In my world a session involves people gathering together, usually in a pub, to play folk music, sing, and sometimes to dance and/or tell stories.

Other kinds of sessions are available: jam sessions, parliamentary sessions, training sessions, drinking sessions, recording sessions, and so on.

The word session comes from the Old French session (sitting; session [of a court or committee]), from the Latin sessiō (a sitting), from sedeō (sit), from the Proto-Italic *sedēō (sit, be sitting, be seated), from the Proto-Indo-European *sed- (to sit), which is also the root of the English word saddle [source].

I go to several folk music sessions a week, and usually play the mandolin, and occasionally the whistle, bodhrán or cavaquinho. I also go to a ukulele session. In some sessions we play Irish or Welsh music, in others we play music and sing songs from many countries. We also play tunes we have written ourselves, including some of my own tunes.

I’ve learnt many tunes from these sessions. Some I can pick up by ear after hearing them a few times, others I record and learn at home. I find it easier to learn a tune if I’ve heard it many times, though some are harder to learn than others as they are in unusual keys, and/or don’t go where you expect.

Similarly, when learning new words in foreign tongues, the ones that are easiest to learn are the ones that sound familar. Maybe I’ve heard them many times, and/or they’re similar to words I already know. Words that contain unfamiliar sounds and combinations of sounds take more learning, just as tunes in unfamiliar keys and/or containing unusual combinations of notes can take longer to learn.

Sometimes the versions of tunes I know are a bit different to the ones known by my fellow musicians. This is a bit like hearing a language spoken with a different accent, or in a different dialect – it may seem strange at first, but you get used to it the more you hear it.

Last night I went to a Welsh music session in the Globe Inn (Tafarn y Glôb) in Bangor. Here’s one of the tunes that was played (Y Derwydd – The Druid):

Sounds good to me

Have you ever learnt a language just because you like the way it sounds?

This is one of the reasons for learning a language discussed by John McWhorter is this TED talk:

He talks about the joys of getting your tongue round the sounds of other languages, and mentions Khmer, with its large inventory of vowels.

Which languages sound good to you?

Are there any particular sounds or combinations of sounds that really appeal to you (in any language)?

I like listening to languages with clicks, such as Xhosa and Zulu, and also to ones with ejectives, such as Georgian. I also like listening to and speaking tonal languages, like Mandarin and Cantonese.

At the moment, my favourite language in terms of sounds, is Swedish.

Other sound favourites include Japanese, Finnish, Italian, Icelandic and Swahili.

Ég fer til Reykjavíkur á morgun

I’m off to Reykjavik tomorrow for the Polyglot Conference. This will be my first time in Iceland, and I’m looking forward to it very much.

I’ve been studying Icelandic with Colloquial Icelandic and Memrise for about a month now. I won’t be having complex conversations just yet, but do at least know some basics. I’ve found quite a few Icelandic words that are similar to English, Swedish and/or German, which helps, and the word order is also similar to English.

One of the speakers at the conference, Daniel Tammet, will be telling us how he learnt Icelandic in a week – rather better than I’ve managed. It should be a very interesting talk.

The title of this post means “I am going to Reykjavik tomorrow”, I think.

Ráðstefna fjöltyngdra einstaklinga

Polyglot Conference logo in Icelandic

One of the Icelandic courses I’m doing on Memrise was made especially for people going to the Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik at the end of October.

Today’s lesson included the phrase “Hefur þú tekið þátt í Ráðstefnu fjöltyngdra einstaklinga?”, which means “Have you been to a Polyglot Conference?”, or literally “Have you taken part in a conference of multilingual individuals?”. Quite a mouthful!

  • Ráðstefna means conference, from ráð (advice, counsel, plan, council) & stefna (direction, course, strategy, policy, movement, convention, conference).
  • Fjöltyngdra is from fjöltyngdur (multilingual, polyglot), from fjöl- (many, multi, poly) & tyngdur (tongued, lingual), from tunga (tongue).
  • Einstaklinga is from einstaklingur (individual, person)

Other Icelandic phrases I’ve learnt from this course, and other courses, are slightly easier to remember and say. For example, “Hvaða tungumál talar þú?” (Which languages do you speak?”).

That’s one that’s easy to ask, but more difficult to answer. The way I answer it depends on the context. At a polyglot event, I’ll go into details about the languages I speak and how well I speak them. Elsewhere I just say something like, “I speak 5 languages fluently, more or less”, or “I speak 11 languages well or fairly well”.

In Icelandic I think I could say “Ég tala fimm tungumál, meira eða minna” (I speak five languages, more or less”) – not sure how to add fluently (fljótt).

500 books in 50 days

500 books in 50 days poster

Today we have a guest post from Oliwia Raniewicz

Have you started learning a foreign language by listening to fairy tales or children’s books in that language? Do you remember how intriguing it was to find out what hidden under those strange and foreign words? It probably interested you more than grammar books, even when you were older. Fairy tales are associated with childhood, fun and joyful time. The language of children’s books is simple and understandable, and at the same time it describes the world in a magical way. This is how children may best learn a new language.

Why in this way?
Because learning by having fun is easier and more interesting than doing grammar exercises. We want children to associate learning a foreign with adventure and not just a school task. Knowledge of foreign languages, as we all know, allows children to freely interact with peers from other countries and learn about their culture. Thanks to this, children learn to be open towards others and towards new opportunities.

Language learning should be for children:

  • an adventure
  • a chance to get to know the world
  • fun and pleasure
  • an opportunity to explore the differences between their own culture and the culture of other nations

Do You Want To Join Us? What Can You Do?

  • Look through your bookshelf. Maybe you can find fairy tales from your childhood.
  • Attic, basement – there are often treasures hidden there. Explore in your old boxes. It’s also a great opportunity to go through your childhood memories.
  • Have your children or your children’s friends already grown up? Ask them if they have books they would like to give away to other children.
  • Ask your friends and work colleagues if they have any spare books. If you have the opportunity to organize an event at your company, we will provide you with materials (posters, newsletters etc.).
  • If you belong to a group (sports, science, religion, etc.) you can share the information about this project with members. Maybe someone will be happy to join us as well.
  • Share the information about this action on Facebook

More information about this project.

See also this video:

Address: Fundacja „Anioły Edukacji”, ul. Dąbrowskiego 77A, 60-529 Poznań, Poland

Email: fundacja@aniolyedukacji.org.pl

Learn to Think in Any Language

Gabriel Wyner contacted me recently about a new app he would like to develop. It will be designed to teach you languages from beginner to fluency.

It will start teaching you pronunciation, and then teach vocabulary and grammar, and will be based on spaced repetition. The system willh enable you to create your own cards, and to add pictures and text to existing ones. It will also suggest words to learn, and the most efficitent order in which to learn them. It will automatically search for images you can use to illustrate the words and sentences, and link them with audio recordings. It will suggest sentences to learn. You can also add your own sentences, and choose sentences that other users have added from a proof-read database. The process of doing all this will help the information to stick in your memory.

Here is Gabriel’s introduction to the project:

You can find out more, and back the project, on Kickstarter.

Project-based learning

When learning languages I use a variety of tools. At the moment I’m using Duolingo and Memrise, and also Colloquial Icelandic. I like the way Duolingo puts words in different contexts and tests you in different ways. I like the way Memrise gives you the option to create your own memory hooks, and the conversations and grammar notes in Colloquial courses are useful.

To practise my speaking and writing, I find projects helpful. For example, I might decide to write a blog post, conversation, story, song or poem in a language I’m learning, or to write about some aspect of that language – words, idioms, grammar, etc. The process of doing this helps me learn new vocabulary and grammar, and it tends to stick if I find it interesting and/or amusing.

So today I will write about the Swedish word snart, which means ‘soon, shortly, any time soon, anon’. Here are some examples of use:

– så snart som möjligt = as quickly as possible
– det snart är jul = the run-up to Christmas
– för snart ett år = nearly a year ago
– vi måste göra det snart = we have to do it soon; we must act quickly

Related expressions include:

– snar = early, ready, quick, swift
– inom kort = shortly, before long
– om en stund = in a while
– strax = soon, close, directly

Snart comes from the Old Norse snart (quickly). Danish and Norwegian have the same word with the same meanings, and in Icelandic there are snar (quick, swift, fast) and snarlega (quickly, fast).

Sources: bab.la, Wiktionary and The Old Norse World

Do you set yourself projects or tasks when learning languages, or other things?

Do you find it useful?